The release of a document penned by Pope Francis criticizing capitalism and free markets generated a lot of media attention this week. Many on the Left took the Pope’s statement to be an endorsement of their political views on taxation and redistribution. James Pethokoukis says not so fast in a post at AEI called Occupy the Vatican? A progressive pope? Not really:
Conservatives — whether churchgoers or not — are not utopians, They understand market economies will never turn the world temporal into Paradise (while at the same time realizing that command-and-control economies have frequently produced a kind of hell on earth). Conservatives value the “safety net” to help those whom the pope calls the “excluded.” But conservatives also want to reform the safety net so more resources are devoted to raising the living standards of the truly needy rather than subsidizing the rich, moving the jobless toward work and self sufficiency, and increasing social mobility and equality of opportunity.
Likewise, few conservatives would disagree with this bit of the pope’s statement: “The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”
Conservatives embrace markets because they support a free society — but also because market economies produce the sort of prosperity that enables true human flourishing, one where we can better define our future as we see fit and achieve success on the basis of merit and hard work. After all, it was innovative capitalism — something the pope surely understands even if actual anti-capitalists don’t — that raised the average real income of the West over the past two centuries from $3 a day to $140. That might not qualify as a miracle, but it is surely a wonder — one that has given us lots better stuff and lots more opportunity to lead lives of deep fulfillment.
And progressives are kidding themselves if they think the pope was somehow embracing an Elizabethian (Warren) agenda of sky-high tax rates and an endlessly expanding welfare state. (Indeed, the pope denounced “a simple welfare mentality.”) How cramped an interpretation. Pope Francis’s vision transcends such parochial concerns. He is a global figure looking at crony capitalism in South America, massive youth unemployment in big government Europe, tremendous wealth disparities in state capitalist Asia, and deep poverty in Africa.
As the Christian and libertarian economist Deirdre McCloskey writes in The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce, the good society can be built on the cardinal and theological virtues that also support a prosperous commercial society. The virtue of Courage, for example “to venture on new ways of business...to overcome the fear of change, to bear defeat unto bankruptcy, to be courteous to new ideas, to wake up the next morning and face fresh work with cheer.” And Hope “to imagine a better machine...to see the future as something other than stagnation or eternal recurrence, to infuse the day’s work with a purpose, seen one’s labor as a glorious calling....The claim here is that modern capitalism does not need to be offset to be good. Capitalism on the contrary can be virtuous. In a fallen world, the bourgeois is not perfect. But it is better than any available alternative.”
McCloskey goes on to write that capitalism needs to be “inspired, moralized, completed.” That sounds exactly like what Pope Francis is trying to do.
Liberals tend to conflate conservative support of free markets with an endorsement of materialism, greed, and inequality. Conservatives, especially those of a religious bent, understand that there is far more to life than markets and money and their core values are often at odds with those who mindlessly support and pursue them.
And the role of the Catholic Church (and the pope as its leader) is not to endorse political or economic positions. It’s to challenge its followers to not get caught up in the material world, but to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ as passed on to us in the Gospel. These challenges from the Church will make those of all political views uncomfortable at times and that’s exactly the way it should be.
UPDATE: Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has further thoughts on this matter in a post at First Things in which he says
Let’s Listen to Pope Francis on Economics:
To be a Christian is to be willing to be challenged, all the time, and to have the humility to let yourself be challenged—including, for Catholics, by the Church.
As people with strongly held economic views who take part in the public debate, we have acquired a certain toughening of the hide. We have become accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being part of a team, and to responding reflexively when we hear the rhetoric of the other team.
What the Church asks of us is to let go of our defenses and make ourselves open to her magisterium. Without abdicating discernment, we also have to force ourselves to open our hearts and let ourselves be challenged by Pope Francis’ words.
When Pope Francis describes inequality and exclusion as very grave moral sins, we must let ourselves be challenged, and we must open our hearts.